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Art Review: Morris' glass sculptures show universality of mankind

Saturday, June 01, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

William Morris: Man Adorned," an exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art, is not what it may first appear to be.

Samburu Woman Man Adorned Series, 2001 Glass, blown and tooled: with steel mounts (Rob Vinnedge)

Enter a darkened gallery and a dozen dramatically lit sculpted heads seem to comprise an ethnographic display organized by the adjacent Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The visages are aboriginal in nature and supplemented by a gathering of spears and a pile of shells reminiscent of artifacts of archaeological excavation.

But those who know glass art won't be so easily misled because within the growing circle of admirers and collectors of that medium, Morris' name is internationally acclaimed.

Morris, who lives in Washington state and was affiliated with the influential Pilchuck Glass School from its first decade, will discuss his art and working methods at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Carnegie with critic James Yood, a frequent commentator on his work.

Born in 1957 in Carmel, Calif., Morris attended California State University at Chico and Central Washington University, where he studied ceramics. When he was 21, he went to Pilchuck -- located in an idyllic setting 60 miles north of Seattle -- becoming an instructor a year later and working with noted glass artist Dale Chihuly for the next decade. Since then, he's served on the school's board and has been artist in residence.

An exceptionally skilled craftsman with exquisite technique, Morris has moved beyond the inherent beauty of his material and overt references to the vessel form, which is shared by clay and glass and evident in his early work. His subject matter of recent decades -- animals, birds, bones and other cultural remnants -- has at times been criticized as being simply decorative. But his conflation of natural and art historical themes with a subtle ideological subtext -- appreciation of and respect for the natural world -- expands his creations beyond mere representation.

A major step in the evolution of his work was taken with room-sized installation works, such as the 25-foot-long "Garnering," which was displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery in 1990. The looming skeletal remains of a large extinct animal cradled other artifacts, including antlers and human skulls, in a scene that combined adventure story and memento mori.

 
 

A 150-page book with the same title as the exhibition is a lavish, coffee-table style documentation of the 62 works in the series. The photographs are full-color, with many close-ups that inspire an appreciation for the complexity of Morris' surface treatments and details. While it includes essays, biographical and bibliographic information, those are somewhat abbreviated. The presentation is an artwork, not a scholarly text, that invites the reader to leisurely peruse the variety and beauty of the works. ($40 in the museum store.)

A work from Morris' "Suspended Artifact" series is in the concurrent exhibition "Contemporary Directions: Glass From the Maxine and William Block Collection," which shows work by a number of studio glass artists. Both exhibitions continue through July 7. Morris' talk is free with museum admission, which is $8; $5 for seniors, full-time students and children 3 and above; free to members. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and until 9 p.m. Thursday. For information, call 412-622-3131 or visit www.cmoa.org.

   
 

In "Man Adorned" -- a series of 62 works, of which only a portion is displayed here -- Morris has put flesh on those skulls to explore the human countenance in a variety of manifestations. It's an amazing feat, especially so because the heads are not cast. Each has been sculpted from molten glass kept malleable with a ready torch. But, as with his other works, the material, made nearly opaque by various surface treatments, isn't readily evident.

The theme of the series is the ways in which mankind has used natural materials and applied patterning, such as tattoo, to enhance the body. Morris draws from the anthropological record for ethnic types as well as means of adornment. However, while the heads are realistically depicted, he doesn't attempt specific representations of tribal features. Indeed, even correct "skin" color seems unessential to the artist.

Cultural universality

Bill DeWalt, director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is a cultural anthropologist with his own take on the exhibition.

"What's so interesting about ["Man Adorned"], and about the work of William Morris, is that in lots of ways it's incredibly austere, because there is no interpretation. And it doesn't matter.

"For me, the really neat thing about going and looking at that exhibition is that it's about cultural diversity, but it's also about cultural universality. People have used the same natural objects, the same materials, to adorn themselves, to decorate themselves. It doesn't matter whether they're Maasai, Inuit -- they're all just people.

"One of the earliest things humans did to enhance themselves was to use natural objects -- beautiful natural objects. That's one of those cultural universals. Humans are never content with their bodies."

DeWalt doesn't think Morris was trying to re-create any one culture in his individual sculptures, but rather combined elements from different cultures, using them as "leaping off points" for his own expression. Looking at a figure's nose, for example, as an anthropologist DeWalt would think "I know that nose from somewhere." And then he'd realize that Morris wasn't trying to depict any specific type. As in the "Inuit Woman and Child," which have elements of Mayan and Samoan, too.

What he does admire is the dignity Morris accords his subjects, who are often dismissed as "so-called primitive peoples," a term neither DeWalt nor Morris use.

The figures that are most realistic, DeWalt points out, are the two in the center of the room -- "Kau Girl," with rows of deep red beads covering her head, and the "Nepalese Priest," with closed eyelids -- and he speculates that they may have been made early in the series.

The scarification of the priest's face -- patterns created in the flesh by scratching it -- is seen in many cultures, DeWalt says. In Morris' hands, these traditional markings are elaborated in design and color, serving as body marking and as painterly abstract.

Many of the eyes are vacant, giving the faces a mixed quality of flesh and mask, the latter a component of ritual in many aboriginal cultures but also metaphoric for the psychological deceits of contemporary life.

DeWalt is also appreciative of the duality that underlies Morris' seemingly straightforward expression, imbuing it with postmodern sophistication. He cites cultural diversity vs. cultural universality, nature vs. culture and realistic vs. abstract representation.

Natural connects

Morris himself walks a line where cultures meet, combining a middle class background -- the son of a doctor and a nurse -- with a devotion to hunting game. And because of this, many of the interpretations of his work delve into issues of masculinity.

But if one reads between the lines of his body of work, a broader truth surfaces, which arises from Morris' concern that modern Western man is losing contact with nature and, by extension, the planet he inhabits.

In "William Morris: Animal/Artifact," published in 2000, critic James Yood speculates that Morris has an understanding that "the most insignificant of creatures can give us insight into the largest philosophical issues confronting us as individuals and as a species." Yood hypothesizes, therefore, that the artist seeks to reveal the "macrocosm in the microcosm."

Respect for the environment begins with an understanding of our own species, the current exhibition appears to add. And through the faces that stare out in frozen remove -- simultaneously fragile and solid, present and past -- Morris, as essayist Blake Edgar puts it in the accompanying book, "conveys human homogeneity at this most fundamental level, and sheds light on our oneness."

If you stand quietly in the midst of the 11 faces you may begin to hear their whispered stories -- it's like walking into the ether of the collective consciousness.

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